If going to IKEA ever feels like entering an alternate universe, just wait until the future gets here. This week, the home furnishing manufacturer unveiled its first-ever foray into virtual reality: The IKEA VR Experience. Users can simply download the app from the gaming portal Steam, strap on an HTC Vive headset ($799), and get busy remodeling one of three virtual kitchens. The future is now.
Well, sort of. The “experience” may be immersive, but for now, it’s pretty limited: You can tweak the colors of cabinets and drawers, and you can view the kitchen in three dimensions from a variety of perspectives, from the point of view of someone who’s 3-foot 3-inches to 6-foot 4-inches tall. You can’t haul in new cabinets or test out cookie jars, but you can get the general gist of where VR may be headed. It might not be much to look at right now, but as a preview of the possibilities of VR in the retail realm, this is about as exciting as a trip to IKEA gets.
VR technology has been in development for the better part of the last fifty years, confined mainly to the realms of science, defense, medicine, and gaming; but it’s only in last few months, with the increased availability of consumer level headsets like the HTC Vive, Samsung Gear VR and the Oculus Rift, that we can see signs of the mainstream tapping its potential.
Samsung is already exploring possibilities for enabling in-app purchases within VR experiences (the money part, mind you, is real), and recently teamed up with AT&T to offer customers virtual voyages on Carnival Cruises.
At select Lowe’s stores (including the locations in Woburn and Framingham), customers can visit a “Holoroom” to build out kitchen and bath designs in virtual space. The Boston-based agency SapientNitro recently developed a VR concept for luxury home retailer The Line that would allow customers to browse the posh furnishings of its virtual SoHo showroom and simply click that $10,2000 Hans Wegner lounge chair into your real life.
With sales of VR headsets projected to reach up to 10 million units this year, it’s likely that this slow crawl toward “v-commerce” and “experiential retail” will ramp up if these canaries can make it out of the mine. In the meantime, it’s easy to imagine the applications that have yet to make it to market — from trying on clothes (“Does this headset make my butt look big?”) to sampling paint colors, checking out car interiors, or touring Airbnbs.
As for IKEA, it may be quite a while before you can sign on, stroll in, virtually redecorate a mockup of your apartment, and whoosh it all to your house with a wave, but for now, just the prospect of never having to drive to Stoughton again is enough to keep hope alive. Now if they could just find a way to simulate those meatballs.